It was 9 a.m. on a Thursday — and Bob and Betty Vasholz, both retired, seemingly were in the most comfortable place in the world.
Their home of nearly 40 years. A split-entry, brown brick house with a fireplace in Florence, one of Omaha's older neighborhoods.
Bob Vasholz was wearing a plaid flannel shirt and jeans and sitting in his rocker. Betty Vasholz was in her pajamas.
The two were going to go to the store so Bob could get two things: a newspaper and a doughnut.
“That's what we did every day,” Betty Vasholz testified, her hands propped on her cane.
But that day, Feb. 7, would be their last together. Bob Vasholz, 83, died in a bizarre break-in and blaze.
Betty Vasholz, 76, took the stand Thursday in the first-degree murder trial of Terrance Hale and described how the couple would have celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary next week.
She teared up. Douglas County prosecutor Beth Beninato handed her a tissue.
“Thank you,” she said softly.
Firefighters and police officers all testified to being flummoxed by the 911 call that day to the Vasholzes' home, 7124 N. 33rd St.
It was first broadcast as a fire. Then dispatchers described it as an assault. Then back to a fire.
At best, confusion. At worst, chaos.
As she detailed the disastrous day, Betty Vasholz had jurors spellbound.
She was spunky. Asked if she had a nickname — in lieu of her formal name of Elizabeth — she smiled and said: “I have several.” One: “Betty.” Another: “BJ,” short for Betty Joan Vasholz.
Asked to describe the faint pinkish burns that still line her arms and part of her back, Vasholz cracked: “They're ugly.”
She was solemn. Her voice got heavy as she identified her husband's clothes, including the soot-filled flannel shirt strewn on the front lawn.
She was insistent, even as defense lawyers suggested she was inconsistent. She said repeatedly from the stand that Hale was her attacker.
She was sharp on several details of that morning. Gazing at crime-scene photos of the living room, she pointed out with precision where all her furniture had been — the “secretariat,” her husband's rocking chair.
She spoke of how all her doors were locked — deadbolts, latches and hooks. She said even a screwdriver was propped in one door to secure it that day.
The couple heard a crash, glass shattering in the basement. They got up to see what was going on.
Vasholz said she saw a man storming up the stairs. She didn't know his name but recognized him as someone who had mowed their lawn and shoveled their walks a couple years before.
As he moved up the stairs, he struck her in the chest, knocking her down.
He demanded money.
“I said we don't have any money,” said Vasholz, shrugging her shoulders. “I said I'd write him a check. He said he didn't want a check. He started hitting me and Bob.”
Vasholz said she swung a brass lamp at the intruder. She hit him in the back and the back of the head.
The intruder grabbed a piece of paper off the desk and, using the stove, set it on fire.
He threw it at Vasholz. She batted it away.
Her husband piped up.
“Why are you doing this?” Bob Vasholz yelled, according to Betty.
The intruder pressed a burning pillow against Betty's flesh. She took off down the three steps from her kitchen to her side door.
Vasholz said she was so concerned about getting help that she raced outside topless after Hale had ripped off her shirt during the attack.
“The thing is, he was hurting my husband,” she said. “So I scrunched down, kind of stooped real low and went down a few steps to a side door, off the kitchen. ... I figured I had to get out of there and get help.”
She did. But rescuers couldn't save her husband.
Smoke started billowing from a side door, the product of a few small fires the intruder had set. Firefighters found Bob Vasholz unresponsive on a bed in the back bedroom.
Rescuers found someone else outside the house: Hale. The Omaha man and his lawyers say he never broke into the Vasholzes' home but only went to help them after he saw smoke.
As she called for help outside, Vasholz pointed to Hale. “He did this — he did this,” she said.
In turn, Hale yelled, “I didn't do this (expletive),” according to police officers and a passer-by.
Asked if her attacker was in the courtroom, Betty Vasholz said, “yes.”
“Where is he seated and what is he wearing?” Beninato asked.
She didn't look directly at Hale as she raised her arm and pointed at him at the defense table.
“He's wearing a black suit and a white shirt,” she said, her body pivoted away from Hale.
“Is there any doubt in your mind that that's the person?” Beninato asked.
“Yes,” she said.
She quickly corrected herself, waving her hand and shaking her head.
“No,” she said.
Assistant Public Defender Scott Sladek attempted to pick away at Betty Vasholz's account. Sladek noted that in her first interview with police — in the hospital — she told police that the mid-morning attack actually occurred after dinner, as it was getting dark.
Sladek also suggested that Betty Vasholz said she couldn't identify the intruder in a second interview.
“I told them who I thought did it,” Vasholz said.
“When I said it was him, I assumed it was him because I seen him in the house and I seen him outside.”
Vasholz acknowledged that her first interview was foggy. She had just gotten out of surgery and would remain in the burn unit at St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Lincoln for a week.
But, she said, she saw her attacker clearly — before the smoke, before the chaos.
“What happened,” she said, “is burned in my brain.”